In 2004, Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson had an idea. The capital should hold a contest in which people would submit designs for a new city flag that would focus less on Utah’s Mormon history, be more inclusive and inspire pride.
The former flag had been designed in the early 1960s by high school students who favored a variety of images Utahns would recognize. It had pioneers, seagulls, covered wagons and a sun setting behind a mountain range. It was hand-drawn and difficult to replicate.
It was also complex and clunky, and Anderson and others decided it was time for a change.
“I wasn’t trying to wipe Mormonism out of the flag,” Anderson said recently. “I just didn’t think the flag should have looked like it was designed by a Sunday school class."
As happens when art must go through the bureaucratic wringer, the top contest submissions for the new city flag didn’t capture the hearts and minds of the City Council. That was in part because Anderson didn’t like the choice of the bird on the flag recommended by the committee he’d assembled; he replaced it with the image of an eagle that council members barely recognized.
Anderson first pitched the redesign in September 2004. He expected it would take a few months, with a new banner waving over City Hall by January 2005. The process dragged out much longer.
The result was the city’s current flag, and by metrics used by designers who track flags, it is an objectively offensive flag.
“I think it served its purpose very well,” Anderson said. “You see that flag and there’s no question the second you see it that it’s a place that’s beautifully situated with mountains and it’s a major metropolitan area.”
The problem, said John Hartvigsen, a vexillologist (flag expert), is that the cityscape is constantly changing. The colors don’t appear to represent anything about the city. It would be difficult for anyone to redraw it from memory.
“If you have to put ‘Salt Lake City’ on it to let people know what it is,” Hartvigsen said, “that tells you you don’t have a very good design.”
While more secular than the previous rendition, the flag violates several tenets of good flag design.
“There are five rules of design that a flag should follow,” said Jorrien Peterson, a local graphic designer who is intent on updating the city’s flag yet again. “Salt Lake’s flag pretty much breaks them all.”
The North American Vexillological Association — the group that sets the bar — recommends flags use two or three basic colors. Salt Lake City’s has six: two separate tones of blue and green, plus white and black.
The flag violates another NAVA principle: Don’t use lettering or seals.
One night during the Anderson-era contest, a committee working to judge submissions pored over dozens of them and whittled them down to a few finalists displayed on a table top, among which one rose to the top.
The standout entry contained a dark blue field, a nod to the state flag. Then a light blue section. A star represented the city’s position as capital; stripes represented cultural diversity. On the right third of the flag was a seagull, which its designer, Douglas Sligting, says illustrated the city’s pioneer heritage flying toward a brighter future.
Sligting’s submission caught the committee’s eye. But the seagull was a problem, according to Paul Swenson, who owns Colonial Flag and sat on the committee. Anderson didn’t like the seagull, which is also the state’s bird and a prominent symbol in Mormon lore.
“What would be wrong with the seagull?” Swenson said, recounting his view at the time in a recent interview. “It fits in with the mountain theme, and the seagulls were put in the historic event."
But in light of the mayor’s opposition, Swenson said he asked Sligting to replace the seagull with a bald eagle.
When three of the finalists were presented to the City Council in 2004, one councilman took issue with the replacement bird. He noted that if someone wanted to see a seagull, they could find one throughout the city. But they’d have little chance of spotting an eagle in town outside of the Tracy Aviary.
Councilman Dale Lambert said the flag just didn’t speak to him.
"I would like something that says 'Salt Lake City,’” Lambert said at the time, according to the Deseret News.
Lambert says today he can’t recall if he was being literal at the time. (“I’m not sure I’ve seen the flag,” he said by email. “Thank you for reminding me of this flag controversy. I remember little.”)
In any case, the flag received another makeover to ensure it said Salt Lake City. It did so In bold capital letters under a silhouetted downtown skyline.
“Everybody had a different idea,” said Deeda Seed, who worked for Anderson at the time. “Nobody was listening to the flag experts.”
When Anderson embarked on his quest of refreshing the flag, NAVA ranked the city’s flag 99th of 150. It’s not clear how the replacement, violations and all, would rank today.
There was more hope at the time for Salt Lake City than for Provo, which had what NAVA considered one of the worst city flags in America. And while Provo’s new flag, redesigned in 2015, also violates several NAVA principles, it is an improvement.
Peterson and other flag enthusiasts have launched a campaign of sorts to replace the Salt Lake City flag that was adopted in 2006.
“You certainly wouldn’t see anybody wearing hats with Salt Lake’s (or even Utah’s) flag on it,” Peterson said. “It seems that whenever a flag for a city or state is well designed, that flag is loved and used.”
Ted Kaye, another flag expert based in Portland who has consulted on redesign efforts, said one of the keys to making it happen is gaining political support before launching an effort.
Luckily for Peterson, Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski is on board with the effort.
“The mayor’s not a fan [of the current flag],” said Matthew Rojas, Biskupski’s spokesman. “We have been actually looking at how other cities have done outreach on design.”
Peterson and others who aren’t fans of the flag are already off to the races. They’ve created draft alternatives.
Peterson says he’s “just getting warmed up,” but his favorite so far contains red, white and blue. The red represents sunrise, the blue represents the Great Salt Lake, and the flag is anchored with snowy Wasatch Mountains. The three stars represent three major events in Salt Lake City: 1847, when Mormon pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley; 1896, when Salt Lake City became capital of the new state; and 2002, when the city hosted the Winter Olympics.
Peterson and his wife have started a petition to replace the city’s flag. They’ve gotten about 100 signatures so far.
Anderson doesn’t seem too concerned about his flag legacy.
“This is not one of my driving passions, believe me,” he said. “I’m not going to even think about this after you and I hang up.”
If Peterson or another designer can come up with a better design, Anderson said, he’d support it.
“I don’t care if somebody wants to change the flag,” he said. “I probably won’t read past the headline if there’s an article about it.”